People think I’m kidding when I tell them my dad taught me to swim by throwing me off the end of the dock. They think it’s hyperbole. It’s not. But it’s a half-truth. He did throw me off the dock but he didn’t teach me to swim.
He taught me to scramble. He taught me to recover. He taught me that I could get myself back to the dock on my own.
I remember standing at the end of the white wood dock at my Uncle J’s cabin watching my brother and sister and our cousins swimming. And I remember my dad lifting me up and making several pretend throws, counting 1-2-3 like he was going to throw me in but then didn’t. It made me laugh over and over again. It never occurred to me that he would actually throw me in. And then he did.
I sank. I dropped through the water like a 40-lb bowling ball. I saw the tall feathery lake weeds on the way down, so many weeds it felt like falling from the sky into a pine forest.
The scrambling started then. To the top, to the light, and then to the pole anchoring the dock. It was hysterical scrambling, frantic kicks and arm flailing that started somehow to make sense. When I got to the dock pole, I didn’t know how I’d gotten there. I only knew that I did.
I didn’t thank my father for this experience or understand that he’d done me some grand favor by tossing me in the lake. I guess I figured he’d thrown his other two kids in the lake before me and if there were more children after me, they’d be thrown in, too. I didn’t feel singled out or abused. I felt like a person who would never need to be scared about getting thrown off the dock.
It had already happened. If it happened again, it couldn’t scare me anymore than it did the first time. After I’d made it to the dock pole. I was inoculated.
I thought about this today. I wondered how to make my granddaughter a tougher girl. I know I would never throw her off the end of the dock. Instead, I would spend endless Sundays at the local pool watching a teenage instructor help her become ‘comfortable in the water.’ I want her to have challenges but I want them to be safe challenges. I want there to be no chance anything bad happen. I don’t want her to be afraid. I don’t want to see that little look in her eyes when she is about to cry.
But because I’ve been so worried all these years that she’d be scared, I’ve got a girl who doesn’t know she can make it to the dock pole. The end of the dock is an ominous place for her, the water unfathomably deep, the weeds angry and strangling. She’s ten and she doesn’t know what I knew at four. She can make it to the dock pole.